A Mus­lim soc­cer star leaves Ger­many

Crit­ics said Änis Ben-Hatira was as­so­ci­at­ing with a char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tion linked to rad­i­cal Is­lam

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­THONY FAIOLA AND SOUAD MEKHENNET IN BELEK, TUR­KEY an­thony.faiola@wash­post.com

He broke out of his tough Berlin neigh­bor­hood in a pair of cleats, reach­ing the top tier of pro­fes­sional soc­cer. The Ger­man army held a photo op when the fa­mous son of Tu­nisian im­mi­grants signed up for his mil­i­tary ser­vice. At an award event in his honor, he hob­nobbed with mem­bers of Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s cabi­net.

“I was their role model for Mus­lim in­te­gra­tion,” said Änis BenHatira, 28, who, un­til last month, was signed to the Ger­man pro team Darm­stadt.

Yet in a Western world fast em­brac­ing a darker view of Is­lam, Ger­many’s one­time sports hero has sud­denly fallen from heights it took a life­time to achieve. His story about be­ing pushed off his team and driven to self-im­posed ex­ile poses a ques­tion be­ing asked on both sides of the At­lantic. In fastchang­ing times, what makes a Mus­lim “rad­i­cal”?

Fol­low­ing the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump and a spate of ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Europe, Is­lam — par­tic­u­larly con­ser­va­tive Is­lam — is un­der a new mi­cro­scope. The gen­uine risk of ter­ror­ism is partly fu­el­ing such scru­tiny. But the search for ex­trem­ism be­hind ev­ery Ko­ran also is test­ing once high bars of re­li­gious free­dom.

That is true even in Ger­many — a coun­try that took in more than 1 mil­lion mostly Mus­lim asy­lum seek­ers and that Trump has called naive about the risk of rad­i­cal Is­lam. Fac­ing a po­ten­tially tougher-than-ex­pected re­elec­tion bid and a pub­lic back­lash over se­cu­rity, Merkel is call­ing for a new ban on full Mus­lim face cov­er­ings and has be­gun more openly wield­ing the term “Is­lamist ter­ror­ism.”

In the cur­rent cli­mate, the taint of ex­trem­ism can spread to even the most vaunted of idols.

“They’re chas­ing us out,” BenHatira said in his first ex­ten­sive in­ter­view since the show­down with his team.

“Mus­lims are the new Jews.”

‘You de­velop a thick skin’

Dur­ing a friendly match against a Belorus­sian club with his new Turk­ish team, Gaziantep­spor, Ben-Hatira sprinted down the field. A ri­val stepped on his cleats, and his shoe came off.

“Are you see­ing this?” he yelled in Ger­man at a non­com­pre­hend­ing ref­eree. A few min­utes later, he got a call — this one a foul against him.

“Was habe ich jetzt getan?” — What did I do now? — he yelled.

This has not been a good year for Änis Ben-Hatira.

The son of a Tu­nisian cook who landed a job in the old French sec­tor of West Berlin in the 1970s, Ben-Hatira is used to be­ing “the other.” He grew up hear­ing kids, and even their par­ents, call him “kanake” — a Ger­man slur gen­er­ally hurled against eth­nic Turks and Arabs.

“You de­velop a thick skin,” he said.

He fought back with soc­cer, be­com­ing a teenage star. He hopped be­tween pro clubs in Berlin, Ham­burg and the Frank­furt area. He signed with Darm­stadt last year, as the team pro­pelled it­self to the top lev­els of pro­fes­sional soc­cer — the Ger­man Bun­desliga.

His good works with poor kids in Berlin earned him na­tional awards and height­ened celebrity. At hos­pi­tals, he vis­ited pe­di­atric can­cer wards. He be­came one face in a video cel­e­brat­ing na­tional di­ver­sity ti­tled, “I am also Ger­many.”

For Ben-Hatira — who still de­scribes him­self as be­ing “not re­ally a big Mus­lim” — money and fame nev­er­the­less trig­gered a re­turn to faith. He also dipped his toes in the wa­ters of con­tro­versy, get­ting pub­lic blow­back af­ter speak­ing out against Is­raeli treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans dur­ing the 2014 con­flict in the Gaza Strip.

De­cid­ing he wanted to do more char­i­ta­ble work, he reached out to An­saar In­ter­na­tional, a con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim or­ga­ni­za­tion founded by the Ger­man rap­per-turned­con­vert Joel Kayser. The group is deeply re­li­gious. Women who work there are mostly veiled. Men tend to have re­li­gious beards.

What lured him to the group, Ben-Hatira said, was its “trans­parency” and the fact that it op­er­ates with a small staff so that more of its dona­tions can be spent on char­ity. Most im­por­tant, it labors in places where other char­i­ties fear to tread. So­ma­lia. Syria. Last sum­mer, Ben-Hatira helped fi­nance An­saar’s ef­fort to build a wa­ter treat­ment plant in the Gaza Strip. In De­cem­ber, he made a pub­lic­ity trip with the group to Ghana.

What he did not know was that his in­volve­ment would cost him his job.

Maybe his ca­reer.

Con­nec­tion to char­ity

Ben-Hatira was not shy about his work with the char­ity, post­ing his sup­port for An­saar on so­cial me­dia. Crit­i­cism quickly fol­lowed.

Na­tional and lo­cal politi­cians ques­tioned how a Mus­lim role model could align him­self with such a con­ser­va­tive group. Ger­man me­dia be­gan quot­ing in­tel­li­gence sources who said the char­ity had funded mil­i­tants. Fol­low­ing law­suits filed by the char­ity for li­bel, the out­lets that printed those al­le­ga­tions had to re­tract them. There was no ev­i­dence that An­saar had ever fi­nanced ter­ror­ism.

But it had done other things. More than two years ago, the or­ga­ni­za­tion held fundrais­ing events where a cast of Salafists — mem­bers of an ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive brand of Is­lam — had preached. They in­cluded Pierre Vo­gel, a polemic Ger­man con­vert who called for a pub­lic fu­neral prayer ser­vice for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden af­ter he was killed in Pak­istan.

Af­ter con­ver­sa­tions with Ger­man se­cu­rity ser­vices, An­saar vol­un­tar­ily ceased those fundrais­ers. But to many Ger­mans — in­clud­ing the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices — the group had shown its true face.

Se­nior Ger­man in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion say they have no ev­i­dence that An­saar has ever pro­moted vi­o­lence. But they nev­er­the­less de­scribe the char­ity as “ex­trem­ist,” cit­ing its rel­a­tively strict brand of Is­lam. Fur­ther­more, of­fi­cials say they are deeply sus­pi­cious of its “con­tacts” in the war zones where it op­er­ates.

Yet the ex­tent of the ev­i­dence against it re­mains un­clear, and An­saar is a le­gal char­ity in Ger­many. No charges against it are pend­ing, of­fi­cials say.

Se­cu­rity ser­vices say that one of the most damn­ing claims against the group — that it main­tains a health clinic in Idlib, Syria, where al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ates hold sway — was based on in­for­ma­tion they found “on the In­ter­net” and could not in­de­pen­dently cor­rob­o­rate. An­saar de­nies that it op­er­ates a clinic there. It also in­sists that it does not co­op­er­ate with mil­i­tants.

In Africa, it has built or­phan­ages for both Mus­lim and Chris­tian vic­tims of Boko Haram, and it funds a hos­pi­tal in the dev­as­tated Syr­ian city of Aleppo, where it has co­op­er­ated with the White Hel­mets, said Kayser, An­saar’s di­rec­tor. It has brought fresh wa­ter and food dis­tri­bu­tion net­works to hard-hit zones. In So­ma­lia, it says, it has worked with U.S.-backed groups to dis­trib­ute aid.

“The rad­i­cals hate us,” Kayser said. A re­cent Ger­man in­tel­li­gence re­port on the group from the do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence ser­vice in the state of North Rhine-West­phalia noted that An­saar helps build mosques in some of the com­mu­ni­ties it aids. The char­ity says that is a dou­ble standard.

“So if Chris­tians help build a church, then no one says a word. But if Mus­lims do it, it ends up in an in­tel­li­gence re­port?” Kayser said.

‘Ath­letes . . . are role mod­els’

Yet crit­ics call Ben-Hatira’s con­nec­tion to the char­ity morally wrong, given his sta­tus as a role model.

Three weeks ago, anony­mous crit­ics be­gan dis­tribut­ing fliers at Darm­stadt games de­cry­ing BenHatira’s links to the “ex­trem­ist” char­ity.

The club’s spon­sors, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial with di­rect knowl­edge of the sit­u­a­tion, called up its man­age­ment, de­mand­ing ex­pla­na­tions. The club re­acted by pub­licly crit­i­ciz­ing An­saar and sug­gest­ing that Ben-Hatira work with a dif­fer­ent char­ity, while also sug­gest­ing that it was “a pri­vate mat­ter.” But dur­ing a fi­nal meet­ing on Jan. 24, team of­fi­cials gave him an ul­ti­ma­tum: He should break with the char­ity or walk.

So he walked, cit­ing his right to re­li­gious free­dom and the lack of ev­i­dence against An­saar.

The club de­clined a re­quest for com­ment, but Ger­man politi­cians praised its swift re­sponse.

“One can­not let a pro­fes­sional foot­baller such as Ben-Hatira get away with as­so­ci­at­ing with ex­trem­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions that are be­ing mon­i­tored by the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices,” Pe­ter Beuth, in­te­rior min­is­ter of the Ger­man state of Hesse, said in a state­ment. Beuth added that “top ath­letes carry a par­tic­u­lar re­spon­si­bil­ity. They are role mod­els, es­pe­cially to young peo­ple, who of­ten iden­tify with their hero.”

Refuge for Mus­lims

The can­cel­la­tion of BenHatira’s con­tract rip­pled through the Mus­lim com­mu­nity in Ger­many. For the most part, main­stream Mus­lim bod­ies stayed silent, ap­par­ently lack­ing an ap­petite to dive into a de­bate over fun­da­men­tal­ism at a sticky time. But fa­mous rap­pers, mainly of Arab and Turk­ish de­scent, pub­licly backed him. For many of BenHatira’s young Mus­lim fans, it pro­vided fur­ther ev­i­dence of what they saw as dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“If you ac­cuse Änis of be­ing a ter­ror­ist, then WE are all ter­ror­ists!!!” one young man wrote on Ben-Hatira’s Face­book page.

Af­ter the scan­dal, he be­came toxic. No Ger­man club would touch him, he said.

Then he got a call from Elyasa Süme.

A Ger­man-Turk and cap­tain of the pro team Gaziantep­spor in Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity Tur­key, Süme and his club pres­i­dent had been fol­low­ing the con­tro­versy in Ger­many. Gaziantep­spor’s man­age­ment sug­gested this might be a golden op­por­tu­nity to score a tal­ented player and sup­port a fel­low Mus­lim.

Ben-Hatira said he does not re­gret his de­ci­sion to leave.

“They wanted me to walk away from a group of peo­ple do­ing good with­out a shred of ev­i­dence against them,” he said, speak­ing at the club’s prac­tice site near the Mediter­ranean Sea — about 1,800 miles from his birth­place in north Berlin.

“This was more im­por­tant than my ca­reer.”

“They wanted me to walk away from a group of peo­ple do­ing good with­out a shred of ev­i­dence against them.” Änis Ben-Hatira, the son of a Tu­nisian im­mi­grant who was born in Berlin and be­came a soc­cer star when he was a teenager. He now plays for the pro team Gaziantep­spor in Tur­key.

ODD AN­DER­SEN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Änis Ben-Hatira, in cen­ter above, cel­e­brates a vic­tory in 2013 with Hertha Berlin team­mates. Ben-Hatira, shown be­low last year, was open about his work with An­saar In­ter­na­tional, a con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim or­ga­ni­za­tion that works in coun­tries such as Syria and So­ma­lia.

SIMON HOF­MANN/BUN­DESLIGA/DFL VIA GETTY IMAGES

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